More than 200 Bienen students sign petition to diversify music curriculum

Madeleine Fernando, Assistant A&E Editor

Steven Banks, a second-year graduate student in the Bienen School of Music, recalls playing just two pieces by black composers in his life. One of the pieces was written by his best friend and member of his chamber ensemble, and the other composition was written by himself.

Over two months ago, Banks started a petition to diversify Bienen’s core curriculum in music theory, music history and aural skills. The online petition currently has more than 200 signatures.

Banks, who is black, said he started the petition after doing some “soul searching” while trying to write a personal statement to apply for a doctoral degree program. Banks realized there were not many people that looked like him in classical music. However, after doing some research, he discovered a ton of music from composers of all backgrounds dating all the way back to the 1700s, he said.

“I just thought it was ridiculous that we don’t learn about this in school, particularly when people are constantly trying to find relevance for classical music,” he said. “They’re always like, ‘Why is it dying, why aren’t people coming to concerts?’ and this is precisely why … (classical music) seems like something of another people.”

Joon Park, a Weinberg and Bienen fourth-year student, said he didn’t hesitate to sign the petition when he saw it on Facebook. Park, who is Asian, said finding role models he relates to on both a racial and compositional level can be difficult.

“The music curriculum more than anything else is focused specifically on the Western tradition, and that’s important to study just because of how much the current repertoire of classical music is based on, but also that kind of in turn stigmatizes music from other origins as ‘otherness,’” he said.

Banks said any changes that may come from the petition should be “inclusive and not reversely exclusive,” meaning that diversity should be incorporated for everyone in the core curriculum, and not just reserved to specialized classes and ensembles. In theory and aural skills classes, he said, the first step would be using examples and sample materials of minority composers.

“Instead of like 10 examples by Beethoven and Bach, you can do some by Bach, Joseph Bologne, Alvin Singleton, Florence Price, and all these different people that are using the same techniques and would be great to help your students learn all the techniques of music, and would also make them aware of all these other composers that are out there,” Banks said.

Banks said he thought creating the petition would be the best step to prompt administrative change and show student support. He first posted a link to the petition on the Bienen Facebook page, where the petition was then shared and well-received among students, Banks said. He plans to set up tables with representatives from all areas of Bienen to encourage passersby to consider signing the petition.

Bienen junior Megan Rohrer said the petition immediately caught her attention because she has recently been concerned with the issue of underrepresentation in music. As a violin performance major, she struggled finding female composer role models in the traditional canon, but said she makes an effort to perform works of women composers.

“There’s hardly any women composers that are taught in the standard works that everyone learns in music history class,” she said. “I’d always accepted this to just be the norm but like, why is it that way?”

Once the petition reaches more than 300 signatures — about half of Bienen students — Banks hopes to bring the petition to Bienen Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery to have a conversation about the importance of diversity in music curriculum, he said.

“Once the school and faculty know that it’s a big concern, I think it won’t be hard honestly to do something about it,” he said. “If Northwestern openly and outwardly makes this a priority, it has enough weight in the music world to start something really big.”

Banks will speak at Northwestern’s upcoming TEDx conference, “The Power of Intention,” in a talk titled “Into the Canon: Racism in Classical Music” on April 15. He said he hopes the talk will be shared within the music world and spark conversation and change within music curriculum.

Banks said he believes the lack of diversity in classical music is an issue that is deeply rooted in its history, saying he doesn’t believe any one person should take the blame for the issue. The petition itself is an effort to work together to integrate more diversity and make classical music more inclusive and approachable for everyone, he said.

“I know there are people my age today who are still feeling like they can’t feel at home in classical music so this is just what I thought would be a natural thing to do to show there’s an interest among students,” he said. “It’s the responsibility of the school to be giving us a comprehensive education that is accurate and worldly and shows the contributions of all people.”

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